She’s been called ‘the greatest photographer you’ve never heard of’… the mysterious Vivian Maier, a nanny based in Chicago who took about 150,000 photographs in her lifetime and stashed them away, not showing them to anyone. She left thousands not even developed, and most as negatives from which she never made prints.
It was sheer accident that her life’s work was discovered.
Two years before she died in 2009, Vivian Maier stopped paying the rent on five storage lockers in Chicago. Without her knowledge the contents were sold. At locker sales, you have to stand at the door and buy without touching. So auctioneer Roger Gunderson saw only a jumble of boxes and suitcases:
“A Paris sticker on one trunk caught my eye. I thought maybe there’s going to be some perfume or jewellery.”Roger Gunderson
Gunderson bought the lot for $250 – “a truck and a half load of stuff”, he says: papers, magazines and thousands upon thousands of photographs. People who then bought them at auction posted a few online. Before long, Vivian Maier went viral. Now her prints sell for thousands of dollars a piece.
Vivian Maier’s prints
But what prints are we talking about?
In her lifetime Vivian Maier had perhaps 5,000 prints made. Some she made in the bathrooms of her lodgings – moving from family to family, she never had a home of her own. Some were made at drugstores where she had negatives developed. She put some of these prints into albums. Ron Slattery, who bought boxes of her work at auction, has a beautiful album with small prints of the extraordinary world tour she went on, all alone, in 1959.
At least one print she framed and hung on her wall (left). It must have been one that she particularly liked. And the fascinating thing is that this print – like most prints she made – is cropped.
Maier’s cameras and the art of cropping
Vivian Maier had several cameras, most with rectangular negatives. But her favourite camera, the Rolleiflex, has a large, square negative.
She started to use the Rolleiflex in 1952, and in time this camera became her trademark. Looking down into its viewfinder, Vivian would see her picture in colour, and square.
Nowadays, the black and white photos she took on the Rolleiflex are being printed large and square. They look stylish, framed on minimalist apartment walls. But in her cluttered apartment, she would never have seen her pictures looking like that.
Richard Cahan co-edited Out of the Shadows, a book of Vivian’s photographs. He was unaware that she ever cropped her photos.
“Photographers are either square or horizontal people”, he said, “and Vivian was a square person.”
His co-editor Michael Williams added:
“When you see her other work where she did use a 35mmm rectangle, it’s just not quite there. For her it all came together with the square; it seems to just sing for her.”
Pamela Bannos, distinguished senior lecturer at Northwestern University in Illinois, says Vivian herself frequently cropped.
She would have seen the image square in the viewfinder, and her composition within the square is unfailingly beautiful. Yet when she printed, she would crop the sides of the square to highlight the human drama in the centre of the frame.